Seeing & Feeling in “Waiting for the Barbarians”

The visual is proof. We say “I see,” meaning “I understand.” We say “Show me,” intending “Then I’ll believe.” An artist’s job — writer or painter — is to make visible and felt using the medium of the craft: words or pigment. As a writer and painter, I am interested in how images gather meaning for the artist/writer and the audience/readers. I wonder how the mind and heart “see” the image, absorb and reflect emotion. A novel accumulates, as does a painting, a felt form in the process of being created.

Lesson: Draw it to explore it

Putting pencil to paper, an artist sees what is before her — let’s say an apple — and learns about it by drawing it. She knows what apples look like, knows their taste, but must see each new apple with fresh eyes and open mind if she wants the drawing to come alive on the paper. By drawing the fruit, she goes deeper into an understanding of the form and characteristics of the particular apple, which then will more truly represent the universe of apples than would a generic drawing.

Writers must do the same with words if they want their prose not only to be distinctive but to be distinctively resonant with the particular story they are telling.

In Waiting for the Barbarians, an allegory of oppression, J.M. Coetzee places us in the mind’s eye of the narrator — a Magistrate in a remote, colonial outpost. Coetzee could have told us that the Magistrate is out of touch with, even carelessly ignorant of, new developments in the governing cities of the Empire and could have foreshadowed, with larger brushstrokes, the brutality to come. Instead, he draws for us observed detail from within the sensibility of the “I” who begins losing his innocence with this first observation. And in doing so, Coetzee sets the theme of “blindness” that reiterates throughout the story.

The book opens with these lines: I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. “They protect one’s eyes against the glare of the sun,” he says. “You would find them useful out here in the desert. They save one from squinting all the time. One has fewer headaches. Look.” He touches the corners of his eyes lightly. “No wrinkles.” He replaces the glasses. It is true. He has the skin of a younger man. “At home everyone wears them.”

We soon learn that the “I” is the Magistrate and the man with the sunglasses is Colonel Joll, who has arrived under “emergency powers,” embodying the oppression of the Empire, with plans to push back or eliminate the “barbarians” from the territory. But in this opening scene, we are only observing and questioning, along with the narrator, much like an artist seeing sunglasses for the first time, trying to draw them, to see how they fit the face, to wonder if the wearer is blind, and know that he’s not because he doesn’t stumble and his eyes are alert, moving, behind the discs.

Another observed detail — the man’s lack of wrinkles, youthful skin — also establishes character and intent. He is vain and superior. His arrival brings harsh consequences but he has no intention of suffering them. He wishes to be spared even a headache.

Lesson: Detail what needs to be seen for the story to gather meaning

Waiting for the Barbarians explores the ability and willingness to see or not. The “seeing” goes beyond observing to witness, knowing, and having empathy for pain, truth, justice, and injustice. The Magistrate befriends a girl—a “barbarian”—who has been nearly blinded by torture. He mumbles to her:

“Nothing is worse than what we can imagine.”  He wants to say, “Tell me, don’t make a mystery of it. Pain is only pain.” But he can’t speak.

Eventually, she reveals the torture that nearly blinded her— “a kind of fork with only two teeth… put into coals till it was hot…” “They did not burn me. They said they would burn my eyes out, but they did not. The man brought it very close to my face and made me look at it. They held my eyelids open. But I had nothing to tell them. That was all. That was when the damage came. After that I could not see properly any more. There was a blue in the middle of everything I looked at; I could only see around the edges. It is difficult to explain. But now it is getting better. The left eye is getting better. That is all.” 

The girl haunts the Magistrate’s dreams. Here again, we see and discover along with the Magistrate, whose dream Coetzee draws vividly with all the senses.

The children are playing in the snow again. In their midst, with her back to me, is the hooded figure of the girl. At moments, as I struggle towards her, she is obliterated from sight behind the curtain of falling snow. My feet sink so deep that I can barely lift them…Now I begin to see what the girl is doing. She is building a fort of snow, a walled town which I recognize in every detail: the battlements with the four watchtowers, the gate with the porter’s hut beside it, the streets and houses, the great square with the barracks compound in one corner. And here is the very spot where I stand! But the square is empty, the whole town is white and mute and empty. I point to the middle of the square.  “You must put people there!” I want to say. No sound comes from my mouth, in which my tongue lies frozen like a fish. Yet she responds. She sits up on her knees and turn her hooded face towards me. I fear, at this last instant, that she will be a disappointment, that the face she will present to me will be obtuse, slick, like an internal organ not meant to live in the light. But no, she is herself, herself as I have never seen her, a smiling child, the light sparkling on her teeth and glancing from her jet-back. eyes. “So this is what it is to see!” I say to myself. I want to speak to her through my clumsy frozen muzzle. “How do you do all that fine work with your hands in mittens?”

Lesson: Use point of view to make visual

The Magistrate is imprisoned for fraternizing with the “barbarians.” In the prison yard, he tries to stop a flogging and is badly beaten. Now a witness and reporter of his own torture, he gives the reader a play-by-play:

I can hear the blow coming and turn to meet it. It catches me full across the face. “I am blind!” I think, staggering back into the blackness that instantly falls. I swallow blood; something blooms across my face, starting as a rosy warmth, turning to fiery agony…What I wanted to say next I cannot remember. A miracle of creation—I pursue the thought but it eludes me like a wisp of smoke. It occurs to me that we crush insects beneath our feet, miracles of creation too, beetles, worms, cockroaches, ants, in their various ways….As I am hustled, a man at each elbow, back through the murmuring crowd to my cell, I even find myself smiling.”

He is taken again from his cell, brutalized and hung in front of a crowd, and continues reporting:

“…the rope is now so tight that I am strangled, speechless. The blood hammers in my ears…” Enduring what he perceives to be his death, he begins to “float back and forth in an arc a foot above the ground like a great old moth with its wings pinched together, roaring, shouting.”

The Magistrate is tortured and ridiculed, but is not killed. In the end, having lived through a horror beyond imagining, he becomes almost a non-person, invisible. He is left alive, discarded. He begins to reenter life, to accept his bodily needs and complaints, to explore beyond the gate of the outpost. He witnesses Colonel Joll, defeated in a disastrous attempt to conquer the “barbarians” on their own turf.

With nowhere else to go, the Magistrate stays on in the outpost, his personal knowledge of pain incorporated into his body and soul. The horror is no longer in his imagination, and thus less terrifying. It has become a thing — like a meal, like the rats that proliferate. It has lost its grip. He wants to leave behind a record, to “abandon the locutions of a civil servant with literary ambitions and begin to tell the truth,” but discovers that he is no closer to understanding. The torture has relived him of his imagined and unimaginable fears. The writing has given him a kind of power over the pain, for that is what writers do — capture experience and bring it under control for examination. But truth remains elusive.

He reports: “There has been something staring me in the face, and still I do not see it.”

Lesson: Use the visual to strengthen theme

In this visually rich and heart-rending tale, we readers are called to “see” who the “barbarians” truly are and where, in each of us, resides the ability to witness truth, pain, justice and injustice and make meaning from it.